Phenom speaks: Puig grateful for fan support
Cuban rookie not fond of media glare, but he's hoping for chance to play for NL
PHOENIX -- The details of Yasiel Puig's childhood in Cuba, the journey from his homeland to Los Angeles, and all of the joys and the sorrows he experienced before joining the Dodgers and becoming one of the most popular players in the game might eventually reveal themselves.
Perhaps the pieces of his life when tied together will provide some insight into the man who has taken the baseball world by storm. The details may provide greater insight into the mind of a younger Puig, the loud boy who nobody -- not his father and certainly not any of his coaches -- could control when he was on the bases or catching a fly ball with one hand.
Maybe one day everyone will understand what it takes for a baseball player like Puig to leave his friends, family and entire life on the tropical island behind and start over in a big city in a foreign country, because the mercurial outfielder will tell them. But maybe the mysterious case of Puig -- why he plays the way he does or acts like he has spent more time in the big leagues than he has -- will never add up because he doesn't want anyone to solve the riddle of his life.
There's a chance Puig knows exactly what he is doing.
What is known about Puig: He is an extreme talent who loves playing baseball. He's not fond of all the media attention, and his unique style is driving the baseball world crazy. Puigmania is just over a month old, and there's a real possibility it could crescendo at the 2013 All-Star Game if he wins the National League's Final Vote. Puig is currently in second in the NL voting behind Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman.
In a span of more than 30 days, the 22-year-old has become a household name. His exploits have been compared to Joe DiMaggio's feats on the field and Barry Bonds' relationship with the media off of it.
"This month has been unforgettable," Puig said in Spanish in an exclusive interview with MLB.com. "I'm grateful that this has happened in my life. I'm happy for myself, my teammates and all the fans of Los Angeles. They've all supported me in this month. I'm really happy with all the fans out there."
Since Puig arrived, the fans have had plenty to cheer about. He has multiple hits in 17 of his first 34 games and, according to SABR, Puig is the second player since 1950 -- the other was fellow Cuban Tony Oliva -- to maintain a batting average of .400 or better through at least his first 130 at-bats.
Since making his June 3 debut, the right-handed hitter leads the big leagues in hits with 55, and he ranks among Major League leaders in batting average, home runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. The rookie finished June with 44 hits, second in history in the first month of a career to DiMaggio's 48 in May 1936.
The Dodgers are 21-13 since Puig made his debut, and they're racing up the NL West standings. They've won two of the first three games against the first-place D-backs this week and trail the division leaders by only 2 1/2 games.
Puig is also experiencing the price of fame, and he's handling the media requests from reporters who want to share his story with the world in an unorthodox manner. Unlike most players, Puig refuses talk before games. He is elusive after the games are over.
Puig says part of his distrust of the media stems from his days as a member of Cuba's national team, when reports surfaced that he shoplifted during an international tournament in Rotterdam, Netherlands. The outfielder was also stunned to hear he was being characterized as a hot head following last month's scuffle with the D-backs in Los Angeles -- a game in which he was hit in the face by a pitch from Arizona starter Ian Kennedy -- and that's helped shape his opinion of the media.
"In Cuba, there wasn't much press. Here, I have a lot of press on me, and it's not something I really like. Maybe they don't understand the situation I'm in," Puig said. "I'm not bad, I just don't like the press and I don't like the fame. I'm having fun and I want my team to get the attention. There are a lot of guys in the bullpen or in the dugout waiting for their turn to talk. It's not that I don't want to give an interview, I just don't want all the press all over me."
The fans love Puig and he loves them back. He's a showman, full of bat flips, gestures and flair rarely seen outside of Caribbean-style baseball.
"He's a good guy," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. "Yasiel is a good kid. It's a lot for him to handle. You've got to look at both sides. He just wants to play. It's not fair to throw all this at him and say, 'Handle it perfectly.' You'd like the guy to handle everything that comes with it. You [reporters] have to be patient."
Puig is high energy, equal parts effort and style, but he has been prone to falling victim to his fervor, sometimes running into an out on the bases or trying to throw out an advancing runner instead of hitting the cutoff man. It's also a good bet that he will swing at first pitch during an at-bat if the ball is anywhere near home plate. There's also a good chance he'll make contact.
"I've been an aggressive player since I was a little kid, and I thank my father and all the trainers who worked with me over the years for that," Puig said. "It's my style. But in this game, I'm learning you have to let guys like Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez do their jobs. I feel bad about messing that up sometimes, but they help me when I make errors. That's something I'm working on. I'm always going to give maximum effort, but I'm realizing I have to be calmer."
Now in its 12th year, the 2013 All-Star Game Final Vote sponsored by freecreditscore.com gives baseball fans around the world the opportunity to select the final player on each All-Star team. Balloting began immediately following Saturday's Major League All-Star Selection Show presented by Taco Bell and ends Thursday at 1 p.m. PT. The winners will be announced on MLB.com shortly thereafter.
Mobile voting in the U.S. and Canada is open to everyone. In the U.S., to receive the 2013 All-Star Game Final Vote sponsored by freecreditscore.com mobile ballot, text the word "VOTE" to 89269. To vote for Puig, simply text message N5 to 89269. In Canada, fans should text N5 to 101010. Standard message and data rates may apply.
For the second consecutive year, the Final Vote will include a social balloting element as Twitter support from the candidates' fans over the last six hours of balloting will count toward their final vote totals.
The 84th All-Star Game will be televised nationally by FOX Sports, in Canada by Rogers Sportsnet and RDS, and worldwide by partners in more than 200 countries via MLB International's independent feed. ESPN Radio and ESPN Radio Deportes will provide national radio coverage of the All-Star Game. MLB Network and SiriusXM also will also provide comprehensive All-Star Week coverage.
"It all depends on the fans," Puig said. "I always give my best and I thank the fans that like the way I play. If I make it to the All-Star Game, it's because of them. They can expect the best from me and I'm always going to out there and give maximum effort."
Puig will join fellow Cuban stars Aroldis Chapman of Cincinnati, Miami pitcher Jose Fernandez, and Oakland's Yoenis Cespedes, who was recently added to the American League's Home Run Derby team, in New York if he wins the Final Vote.
"We've all been working every day to get to this point. We've played all over the world and in different leagues," Puig said. "In Cuba, we played because we loved baseball. Here, we play for the fans, too. We know how to play the game, and that's why there are so many of us here."